What should you do if you’re caught “ridin’ dirty”?

It's obviously never a good idea to have illegal substances in your vehicle. But, if you ever find yourself in that situation, you need to at least know your rights.

Only two things you MUST do when pulled-over by a police officer

  1. You must correctly identify yourself and
  2. You must get out of the vehicle if asked.

If you give a fake name or date of birth, you will be charged with providing false information to an officer of the law. And if you don't get out of the vehicle when asked, the officer will yank you out and most likely throw another charge on you for that as well.

Officers often ask for consent to search a vehicle

If you’ve ever had a drug offense or if there is something that leads the officer to think you might have something illegal in your car, the officer will often first ask for consent to search your car.

When that happens, please know you do NOT have to give consent to search your car. Sometimes clients tell me they gave consent because they knew the cops would find a way to search their vehicle anyway. That may be true, but the moment you consent you have given up your Fourth Amendment right against illegal search & seizure. Basically, you're doing the officer a favor. Now the officer never has to explain to a judge how he had probable cause to search your vehicle because you just gave up that right.

As I always ask my clients, “When was the last time an officer swung by your work to help you do your job?” They don't. So why should you help him do his job when, at that moment, his job is investigating, and possibly arresting, you?

Without consent, an officer needs probable cause to search your vehicle

Don't consent to search. Ever. So long as a defendant doesn't consent, the state will have to prove that there was probable cause to search the vehicle at the time of the search. Notice I underlined “at the time of the search”. The fact that an officer may find something in the vehicle during the search has no bearing on whether or not they actually had probable cause before the vehicle search.

How do officers get probable cause to search the vehicle?

Oftentimes, officers are able to establish probable cause to search a vehicle through a person’s own admissions. If an officer asks and you admit that drugs are in your vehicle, you have now given him probable cause to search your vehicle. I'm not suggesting that you lie to an officer. What I am saying is that you don't have to answer the question at all. You can simply say that you are not going to answer any questions without your attorney present.

Another very common way is the smell of marijuana. That will automatically create probable cause to search your car. The other most common form of probable cause I see is when an officer can see a drug in plain view. For instance, if an officer sees a baggie of marijuana sitting on the floorboard as he’s talking to you, that can establish probable cause to search your vehicle.

What can a lawyer do for me?

Officers are not always correct on what they think constitutes probable cause to search a vehicle. Sometimes, they are so intent on searching a vehicle that they get ahead of themselves and begin searching before probable cause has been established.

A board-certified criminal defense attorney can find those mistakes and leverage them for dismissals or, at the very least, favorable plea deals. Don’t ever assume the officer followed the law perfectly until you’ve had a board-certified attorney review your case.